Today I happened across this lovely post about the importance of being interesting, and how to develop it as a personal quality. The post really resonated with me, in no small part because I see a lot of my own personal history in there, too.
In school, I was never a particularly great student. I was lazy, hated doing homework, and could really only be persuaded to exert maximum effort on the subjects I really cared about (english lit, french). I had a solid B+ average for most of high school, until my junior year I got a National Merit scholarship and a very good SAT score, and suddenly started to think that maybe I should try to get into a good college. It was too late by then, of course...I got rejected by Duke, waitlisted by Wake Forest, and didn't get the kind of scholarship offers from either Wake or Mercer to make going to either one financially feasible. Florida State was free, and nearby, and my grateful parents were so happy I chose it at a time that they were financially strapped with building a new business that they bought me a car my sophomore year as a thank you gift.
At FSU, for the first time in my life, I gave a crap about school. Sort of. I got great grades my freshman year, and pretty good grades my sophomore year. Then I met Gabe, fell in love, and ran out of spending money all at the same time. I learned the hard way my junior year that it was not possible to attend a full courseload of classes, work nearly full-time, and be a lovesick twenty-one year old. I ended up not attending any classes for most of the spring semester of my junior year, and unsurprisingly I failed every single class (except a poetry class I'd gone to a few more times than the others, so in that one I got a C-.) I felt stuck and lost for awhile, worried my dream of attending law school was dashed forever. Then I finally shook myself out of it, went to the school administration, and pled my case: I'd been a great student to that point, I'd needed to work to support myself, and it had just become too hard to keep up with schoolwork while working that much. I apparently made a compelling case because the university agreed to retroactively withdraw me from that semester of school, and in one day my GPA shot back up from a 3.2 to a 3.6. This happened approximately a month before my parents somehow discovered what was going on and called me in a panic. It was the most fortuitous timing ever that I was able to tell them I had fixed the whole thing, the semester was but a distant memory, and I'd be re-enrolling in the fall to finish up what was left of my degree requirements and graduate in the spring.
(Fun fact: to this day, as in just last week this happened, I still have nightmares in which I find out that I didn't complete all the necessary requirements for my degree and I have to go back and finish a class or I won't be able to practice law. That's right, 15 years later, this is still the gift that keeps on giving nightmares. Don't drop out of school, children. It will haunt you forever even if you go back and finish.)
I tell you all of this only to say that by some miracle, despite this tale of minimal effort and lapses in concentration, I somehow managed to not only get into a top 25 law school and get a full tuition scholarship. How? Well, it wasn't for my 3.6 GPA or my good but not fantastic LSAT score. It was because of my essay. I know this because in my acceptance letter from BU Law School, the admissions director wrote that she loved my essay and that she was submitting me for the Dean's scholarship. When she called a few weeks later to tell me that I had been awarded the scholarship (which was a real miracle, because I was discovering at the time that thanks to a mishap or two with some ill-advised college credit cards I was going to have a hell of a time getting approved for private school loans), she specifically mentioned the essay as the reason all of this was happening.
So what did I write about, you might be wondering? My essay began with the chastising I'd heard from my mother ever since I was a little girl, that I was too opinionated and argumentative (her nickname for me as a child was "Contrary Mary," when she wasn't calling me "Sarah Burnhardt" to mock my dramatic tendencies), too much of an in your face know it all. She used to tell me that nobody would want to be around someone who always felt the need to share their opinion, to disagree for fun, to insist on being right even if it made her sound like Brainy Smurf. But then I wrote about my discovery of so-called second wave feminism and post-feminism, and how Naomi Wolf's "Fire With Fire" had really changed my entire perspective and made me proud to be perceived as a difficult woman because it meant I could do anything I wanted to regardless of what society might think about me being forceful, argumentative and ambitious while also being female. And then I closed with the emotional kicker, that now when my mother talked about me to friends and family, she proudly told them I was going to law school and that I'd make an excellent lawyer, because I've always loved to argue. (I promise, it was better than that, in the way that an impassioned 21 year old can make this sort of thing really pull at the ol' heartstrings, but you get the jist.)
In every book about law school admissions essays that I read, the advice was the same. Stay away from controversy and politics. Write about something safe, something that highlights your charity work, or your desire for public service, or your wish to help make the world a better place. I ignored all of it. This essay, I promise, was about as far from safe as you could get. It was highly personal, but it was about feminism and with the wrong audience I'm sure it would have gone over like a ton of bricks. (Maybe that's why I got waitlisted for Boston College, with its conservative, Jesuit traditions?) But the main thing it had going for it was that it was interesting, and certainly was probably the only essay the admissions staff read that day that took many risks.
My whole life, I've taken the long way to where I wanted to be. I went to FSU, then nearly flunked out, then managed to wing my way into a good law school. I was hired by a good firm out of law school, got laid off after 2 years, thought my work life was over, slummed it for awhile on the plaintiffs' side and then worked at a small products liability firm biding my time, then took the plunge and moved to Atlanta only to make it to my current big firm thanks to one partner's familiarity with my old firm. Even here, I went through periods where I didn't have much work or much motivation, but just when things looked lost I found the right case to sink my teeth into and an opportunity to show what I could do. Now, hopefully, despite the circuitous path I am *thisclose* to the brass ring (I don't want to say the word and jinx myself, so let's just say it rhymes with "fartnership".) I didn't take the most direct path, but I made sure it stayed interesting all along the way.
I compare where I ended up today with the trajectory of my high school classmate, also named Sara(h), who graduated at the same time I did, attended Harvard Law, took the Mass. bar at the same time I did, started working at another large Boston firm at the same time I did (in the same building, no less!), and is now a partner doing securities litigation. She's done everything perfectly and to the hilt, always on the right path, taking the safe course, working as hard as she could all of the time. And maybe she believes she is happy, and she certainly appears to be successful. Perhaps she is both. But I bet she'll never make time to hike the Milford Track. And I can guarantee you I've had more fun along the way.
From time to time I tell the men I date and the close friends in my life the same thing: stick with me, and life may be frustrating, infuriating, crazy and chaotic at times. But it will rarely if ever be boring.